Digital Directions: The Third Rail
Like many parents of elementary-school-age children, I spend a fair amount of time around trains. Steam, cog or narrow-gauge, I am no stranger to the iron horse. Perhaps that explains the frequency of my use of railroad metaphors. This column is no exception.
To realize the full potential of digital technology in product development and marketing, content organizations will continue to evolve over a long period of time. This journey can be represented as a railroad track with parallel rails.
These rails are necessary to move forward and stay on course. But unfamiliarity with the track can have deadly consequences.
The First Rail: Technology Platform
The first “rail” is the technology platform, which provides the underlying capabilities needed to create, manage and deliver digital media. Workflow applications, database and content management systems, Web and streaming-media servers, and e-commerce systems represent platforms that allow publishers to create and market digital offerings.
These platforms can either be developed internally, or enabled through an external service provider. In either case, information technology departments manage platform selection and integration. It is the mission of IT to understand requirements across the organization and deliver platforms that provide these capabilities within the fiscal constraints of the organization.
The Second Rail: Digital Media Programs
While a technology platform represents a capability, it does not in and of itself deliver any customer value. That’s where the second rail comes in: digital media programs. Digital media programs exploit the capabilities of the platform to yield customer value in the form of digital offerings or marketing programs:
• a digital distribution program that uses a digital asset distributor’s conversion capabilities to support electronic content delivery to multiple channels in multiple formats; or
• an online marketing program that uses an Internet service provider’s streaming-media capabilities to deliver video interviews of authors.
Programs are the domain of editorial (product development) and marketing groups, not technology groups. With a clear delineation between programs and platforms, organizations can avoid the turf battles that often arise surrounding digital media.
It takes much longer to select, integrate and roll out a platform than it does to launch a program on that platform. New platforms require a long lead-time for implementation, on the order of 12 to 24 months. On the other hand, digital media programs need to operate within the tight time frames of the marketplace, with delivery usually within 12 months of conception. Digital programs need to use the platforms that are currently available to them, while providing input to IT staff on their requirements for the next platform.
The Third Rail: People
The digital track has a third rail: people. The human dimension is a critical, but often overlooked aspect of digital evolution. As technologies mature, they become more accessible to all competitors. The technology becomes commoditized, the playing field levels. People will emerge as the true differentiators, not the technologies. Those organizations that develop comprehensive organizational strategies in support of digital media will become leaders in innovation and grow their market-share.
A couple issues relating to the human dimension are:
• Training: Marketing and product- development teams need training to maximize the value they can get from digital platforms. Training need not be expensive, and is often best delivered by peers. Technology teams also need to continually assess the skills needed to deliver and support platforms—such as in the area of XML—and train in areas where there are skill gaps.
• Compensation: The business model for digital offerings often represents a departure from the past. For example, publishers in the education market have long struggled with the issue of sales compensation for digital offerings, sometimes with drastic strategic consequences. If a sales force is compensated on physical book sales, the digital ancillaries get bundled in “for free” when the book is adopted. A sale is made, but the revenue contribution for the digital component is hidden. The long-term strategic impact is a lack of digital innovation, since a business case cannot be made without revenue recognition. Alternatively, sales plans and goals can be modified to drive the sale of digital offerings to support moving toward electronic delivery. Digital strategy must be supported by organizational behavior, which in turn needs to be reinforced by compensation plans. Those organizations that get this right will realize a larger share of the digital market.
New directions require new skills and perspectives. Hiring choices across the organization should reflect its digital strategy. Familiarity with digital technologies should be expected in new hires across the organization, not just for the “techies.” This will both reduce training requirements and increase the rate of innovation. In addition, publishing organizations should seek out those who are willing to look at new approaches to the creation, sale and distribution of content. We are clearly in the midst of a period of tremendous change. Those uncomfortable with diverging from “the way we always did things” will become obstacles to digital innovation.
The organizational aspect, the third rail, is the most important one. No matter how visionary, no digital media platform or program can succeed without the commitment of the organization, equipped with the necessary understanding, training and motivation.
Of course, urban denizens are well familiar with the third rail: It is the rail carrying the high-voltage line for the subway. It’s what gives the train power and makes it go. On the other hand, it’s pretty catastrophic if you are unfamiliar with the third rail and stumble across it by accident. It can ruin your whole day.
Andrew Brenneman is managing director of Finitiv, a digital media consultancy. He has 20 years of experience leading pioneering digital media initiatives in publishing and advertising, including NETg’s Skill Builder, Thomson Learning’s WebTutor, FreeMark Mail and MSDewey.com. Brenneman also founded the Digital Media Group of The University of Chicago Press Books Division, where he led digital distribution and the development of The Chicago Manual of Style Online.